Scientists stumble upon chemical that prevents death of brain tissue

Breakthrough significant in treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease
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First Published: Thu, Oct 10 2013. 10 36 PM IST
The landmark British study is already being hailed as the ‘turning point’ in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
The landmark British study is already being hailed as the ‘turning point’ in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Updated: Thu, Oct 10 2013. 11 40 PM IST
New Delhi: Researchers have discovered the first chemical to prevent the death of brain tissue, achieving a significant breakthrough in treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The landmark British study is already being hailed as the “turning point” in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester have established, by tests on mice, that all brain cell deaths from prion disease—a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders—can be prevented.
While it could take years before the science, currently tested on animals, could lead to a drug for humans, this is the first time that any form of neurodegeneration has been completely halted.
Professor Roger Morris, from King’s College London, was quoted by the BBC as saying, “This finding, I suspect, will be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.” He said a cure for Alzheimer’s was not imminent but that he was “very excited”. “It’s the first proof in any living animal that you can delay neurodegeneration. The world won’t change tomorrow, but this is a landmark study.”
The scientific community is most excited about replicating the research across other neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease.
The study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, showed that mice with prion disease developed severe memory and movement problems and died within 12 weeks. However, those given the compound showed no sign of brain tissue wasting away.
Neurodegenerative diseases lead to progressive loss of function of neurons, including death of brain cells, which affects decision making, memory and motor functions.
When a virus hijacks a brain cell, it leads to a build-up of viral proteins. Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the spread of the virus.
However, many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty or “misfolded” proteins.
These activate the same defences, but with more severe consequences.
The “misfolded” proteins linger and the brain cells shut down protein production for so long that they eventually starve themselves to death. This can affect memory and other brain functions, explains the paper published in the medical journal. Researchers at MRC used a compound which prevented those defence mechanisms from kicking in and, in turn, halted neurodegeneration.
David Allsop, professor of neuroscience at Lancaster University, described the results as “very dramatic and highly encouraging”, but cautioned that more research was needed to see how the findings would apply to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
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First Published: Thu, Oct 10 2013. 10 36 PM IST
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